Not so long ago, a PB&J sandwich was a lunchbox and playdate staple. But with the rising number of kids who are allergic to peanuts and other common ingredients, parents need creative swaps for snacks and meals that were once no-brainers. Nearly six million kids now have food allergies, according to a recent report in an American Academy of Pediatrics journal—so even if your own child doesn’t have any dietary issues, chances are you’ll be hosting other kids who do.
So what can you feed kids when your usual go-tos won’t work? The good news is, it’s easier than ever to make smart substitutions for the most common food allergens—and to keep the little ones happy at snacktime or mealtime. If you’re hosting a playdate for kids who can’t eat certain foods, plan ahead and run your snack ideas by the parents. It also makes sense to stock up on kid-friendly plates and utensils and store them in a separate drawer (or in a zip-close bag), for children with allergies to use.
We’ve rounded up the six most common kids’ food allergens, along with delicious substitutions that will keep snacktimes, mealtimes and playdates stress-free, safe and fun for everyone.
Common Allergen: Peanuts/Peanut Butter
Easy Swap: Sunflower Seed Butter
Kids can still enjoy a PB&J-esque experience even without peanut butter, thanks to sunflower seed butter. Sunflower seeds are not a common allergen, and they make a flavorful nut-like spread that’s easier than ever to find. Layer it with jelly on a sandwich, or get out your muffin pan and make a batch of these tasty sunflower seed butter, honey and banana muffins.
Common Allergen: Tree Nuts
Easy Swap: Seeds
Tree nuts like cashews, almonds and walnuts can be as problematic as peanuts for some kids, or even more so. When you’re hosting a playdate and you’re not sure if a kid can eat tree nuts or peanuts (which are technically legumes, since they grow in the ground), it’s best to avoid both. Stock up on seeds instead. Pumpkin seeds, hemp seeds or sunflower seeds (which make that terrific “butter” we mentioned above) are similarly crunchy, fun to eat and packed with protein. Serve them straight-up in a snack cup, or bake them into instant favorites like this rye bread spiked with pumpkin seeds and dried cherries.
Common Allergen: Milk/Dairy
Easy Swaps: Almond, Soy or Coconut Milk
A milk allergy isn’t the same as lactose intolerance. Kids with an actual allergy might get an upset stomach or experience other health issues if they consume a product that contains dairy. (It pays to look closely at ingredient labels, since some items you might not think of as dairy—like flavored potato chips, jarred pasta sauce and fish sticks—could have milk lurking in there.) So, what to serve instead? Almond, soy or coconut milk are popular dairy-free alternatives that you can pour over a bowl of cereal or use in lots of kid-friendly snack or dessert recipes, like this nutritious berry-topped chia seed pudding.
Common Allergen: Eggs
Easy Swap: Vegetable Oil Mixture
No, you aren't going to serve a child a plate of oil with a side of hash browns. But since many baked goods recipes call for eggs (to help the dough leaven), you’ll need an egg replacement if you’re planning to make one of those treats. The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America suggests replacing each egg with 1 1/2 tablespoons of vegetable oil mixed with 1 1/2 tablespoons of water and 1 teaspoon of baking powder. (Instead, you can use one of the commercial "egg replacement" products, which come in powdered form. But note that these are not the same as the egg substitutes you might see in the dairy section; those are mostly egg whites, so they won't work for people with an egg allergy.)
Subbing in the vegetable oil mixture or the powdered product should work for any baked goods you’re planning to make, but it’s a good idea to do a test-run of the recipe first. Don’t have time? Grab your Silicone Baking Cups and whip up a batch of these easy, crowd-pleasing eggless cupcakes—which happen to be dairy-free, too.
Common Allergen: Wheat/Gluten
Easy Swap: Rice
Thanks to the gluten-free movement, groceries are now full of tasty wheat-free breads, pastas and other grain products. Many of these use rice in lieu of wheat, and some use beans, potato flour and/or corn. It’s also easy to create your own delicious substitute for store-bought crackers: These homemade veggie chips are fun to make and popular with kids.
Common Allergen: Soy
Easy Swap: Allergy-Friendly Granola Bars
Unless your child has a very sophisticated palate, chances are she won't be too upset about missing out on tofu or soy sauce. But soy is found in a surprisingly large number of packaged foods, and granola bars top the list of soy-filled kid faves. Fortunately, more companies now offer soy-free bars. Another option is to make your own soy-free granola bars. Provided your child isn't also allergic to nuts, this no-bake chocolate chip granola bar recipe from Cookie and Kate should be a hit.
No matter which allergy-friendly treats you buy or DIY, store them separately in their own containers to keep them away from common allergens. Need a simple storage solution? POP Containers keep everything in your kitchen organized and easy to find the next time you’ve got a crowd of hungry kids to feed.